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Gov. Rauner late for school again

Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks to students at Auburn High School, Wednesday, April 27, 2016 in Auburn, Ill. (AP File Photo/Seth Perlman)

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If Illinois is going to spend more money on schools, which it should, the state should spend that money right.

Gov. Bruce Rauner, unfortunately, continues to push a plan that, while better than nothing, would waste much of that extra spending. Rauner proposes increasing funding for even the wealthiest school districts — the Lake Forests and New Triers — at the expense of financially hard-up districts that sorely need every one of those extra dollars.

A better way to go, as laid out in a bill passed by the state Senate Tuesday, would be to rewrite the state’s school aid formula immediately — no further delays. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, D- Bunker Hill, would shift state education dollars toward the neediest school districts while minimizing the loss to middle-tier districts.

Now, however, the bill goes to the House, where its prospects are shaky. Democrats there say they are working up their own bill, which leaves us wondering why.

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Yes, Manar’s bill picks winners and losers, which the governor, his fellow Republicans and some Democrats dislike. But the state’s current school funding formula also picks winners and losers — the current losers being our state’s poorest kids. Why double down on that?

Moreover, under Manar’s plan there need be no losers. His bill calls for making this shift in funding over a number of years, ideally to give the governor and Legislature time to increase overall funding so that no district has to take a hit.

Our fear is that this bill is going nowhere, doomed by the legislative calendar — the current session is scheduled to adjourn May 31 — and raw politics.

Rauner prefers a simple standalone bill that would fully fund the existing school aid formula, giving all districts at least a bit more money, safely upsetting no political allies. Once the governor has made sure, then, that the schools will open on time in the fall, he will feel freer to play hardball on the rest of the state budget.

House Speaker Mike Madigan, for his part, has signaled he would rather include school funding as part of a grand bargain on the whole state budget. Politics is a game of leverage, and Madigan appreciates that the governor’s desire to avoid a politically disastrous school-closing crisis gives the Democrats great leverage.

Political games should matter less than good public policy. A reworking of the Illinois school aid formula is long overdue, whether accomplished as a standalone bill or as part of the larger budget. Struggling school districts, beginning with Chicago, should not be asked to wait another six months or a year, not that we believe there would be much action even then.

Nothing really big happens in Springfield until the last days of a legislative session when the heat is on. The time to move on state education funding reform is now.

The Chicago Public Schools face a $1 billion pension gap. Of the $972 million in general state aid due to CPS under the current funding formula, roughly $700 million would go toward just meeting a pension payment due in June.

Manar’s bill would ease CPS’ pension burden, having the state pick up “normal” pension costs, as the state already does for every other school district. But CPS almost certainly would have to raise property taxes nonetheless, which would require further state action — a lifting of the property tax cap.

And Rauner has made clear he’s no fan of lifting property tax caps. He has, in fact, called for a property tax freeze.

The governor has been more assertive of late that he believes the school aid formula should be reformed, eventually, to steer a larger portion of education dollars to school districts that need the most help. He also has signaled, sympathetically, that he understands CPS faces a particular burden with its massive pension obligations. And he has not ruled out signing Manar’s bill should it ever make it to his desk (though it won’t without his upfront support), saying he would have to “study” it.

But Rauner has never laid out a viable alternative to Manar’s bill — not one that would significantly help rescue CPS, which is tantamount to saving Chicago, which is tantamount to saving Illinois. Without Chicago, Illinois is an economic backwater.

On the contrary, the governor still insists bankruptcy is an option for Chicago’s schools. As if CPS parents with choices, such as a private school or a move to the suburbs, would not pick up and leave.

Rauner says he’s an education governor, but so far he’s late for class.

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